The NCSS Challenge and Me: an autobiography

James R. Curran
Jul 15 · 5 min read
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Me, second from the left, working with students at the NCSS 2020 in Melbourne

The NCSS Challenge is an online programming competition with a unique model: students learn to program while competing. The success of the NCSS Challenge is what inspired (or forced?!) us to found Grok Learning; led to the opportunity to write the Australian Curriculum: Digital Technologies; and ultimately, convince our Federal Department of Education to fund the Australian Computing Academy.

For the last 15 years, the NCSS Challenge has run in early (Australian) Term 3, from the end of July until early September. Last year, over 17,500 students and teachers participated in the Challenge, making more than 570,000 submissions over the 5 weeks.

Why and how did the Challenge start, how has it lasted so long, and what is NCSS anyway?

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Tutors and students at NCSS 2020 in Melbourne

Let’s answer the last one first, because it sets the scene for the rest: NCSS is the National Computer Science School, a 10-day residential camp for Year 11–12 students and teachers run by the University of Sydney since 1996. I’ve been the NCSS director for the last 20 years.

We accept nearly 200 elite students from around Australia each January. At NCSS, students study advanced programming, computer science (CS), web development, and embedded systems through university-style lectures, lab sessions and project work.

Over the years, the NCSS student teams have developed search engines, Facebook-like social networks, and automated rescue robots. Currently, the teams either design:

  • a chatbot that integrates with the Slack chat or Amazon Alexa voice APIs;

or

  • a mini-Olympics event to encourage health and fitness run and judged by BBC micro:bits.

Our curriculum rule of thumb is to make NCSS everything we would have loved to learn about computer science when we were at school. And it works!

My own summer camp experience — introduction to ‘The Club’

Sadly, I just missed the chance to attend NCSS as a student (it started just after I finished school). But I was accepted into the equivalent summer camp for maths nerds, the National Mathematics Summer School (lovingly nicknamed NeMeSiS by its alumni).

NeMeSiS completely changed my life. I loved every second of it. I grew up in Newcastle and before NeMeSiS I didn’t know much about university and never considered leaving home for an elite academic institution. After, I knew there was so much more for me beyond Newcastle.

My family got me to every enrichment activity in Newcastle. But, I was unprepared for the scale of opportunities in Sydney, and how many NeMeSiS students already knew each other through them. They were already in The Club. A club that almost nobody in Newcastle even knew existed. And Newcastle was the largest regional city in Australia at that time.

NCSS Summer School

As a result of NeMeSiS, I ended up enrolling at the University of Sydney. My lecturers in computer science, Professor Judy Kay and Associate Professor Bob Kummerfeld, gave me the opportunity to tutor for UUSCSS (Unisys University of Sydney Computer Science School) as it was then called back in 1998. They cleverly handed over the UUSCSS reins to me and (now Professor) Tara Murphy (my partner in life and teaching) in 2001, while we were PhD students at the University of Edinburgh.

When we moved back to Sydney in 2004, our goal was to replicate my life-changing experience of NeMeSiS (and Tara’s at the National Youth Science Forum) for kids interested in computer science. We changed the name to NCSS, and set about making a longer, truly national programme accessible to more students.

We worked very hard to find industry sponsorship, ensuring students from everywhere and every socio-economic background could attend. I’m proud to say that NCSS is still the most affordable residential enrichment camp to attend, and because of generous industry support, we offer many full fee and travel scholarships in cases of financial need.

However, we were frustrated that we still saw applications from the same kind of kids (mostly male), from the same kind of schools (mostly private), from the same kind of places (mostly wealthier parts of capital cities) as my peers were at NeMeSiS. We were still just seeing kids that were in ‘The Club’. The club where their IT teachers were experienced coders, who knew all of the opportunities available to their students, and helped them craft excellent applications.

The NCSS Challenge — an invitation to ‘The Club’

In 2005, we decided we had to do something. We had to not only cast the net outside of the club for NCSS applicants, but we had to find a way to make those applicants competitive with club members by training them and their teachers.

So we started the NCSS Challenge. We liked the idea of a competition. I’m a competitive person. And I knew that schools tended to engage strongly in competitions as well. There were already programming competitions for schools, e.g. the UNSW Programming Competition, that were short, timed events. But if you didn’t already know how to program, then they just proved you didn’t belong in the clubhouse.

We wanted a competition that invited you into the club by teaching you along the way. And made you feel welcome by validating your skills. And it needed to be something that a teacher would use in class, for every student, not just the ones who already knew they were interested.

Fifteen years later, the model is still surprisingly unique.

This year, we expanded the Challenge to run in February–March as well as July-September. Many schools run subjects such as Digital Technologies on a semester basis, so if students were taking the class in the first half of the year they missed out on the chance to do the Challenge in class. By offering the Challenge twice a year we are giving all students the opportunity to participate and join the club.

Impact of the Challenge

Since the Challenge started we have had over 84,000 students participate and NCSS has grown to 210 students and teachers per year, and is now so big we have been able to start a Melbourne program as well. Former participants have gone on to jobs at Atlassian, Google, etc and many of them come back to help tutor the Challenge and the Summer School every year.

The NCSS Challenge is open to school students worldwide and runs for 5 weeks beginning in February and July each year.

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